Sex worker-led organisations in Uganda call for “human rights, not hate” in the wake of dangerous anti-gay bill

Transgender Equality Uganda

On 21 March, Ugandan lawmakers approved new legislation that, if adopted, would violate multiple fundamental rights and criminalise the LGBTQI+ community.

NSWP member organisation Transgender Equality Uganda explains more about the bill, its penalties, and its consequences.

“On the 28th February 2023, the LGBTQI+ community in Uganda was sent into shock and disbelief when the anti- homosexuality bill was brought back to parliament with a lot of vigour and determination by the legislators to pass it into law. Shortly after it was debated on, it was passed by almost all 389 lawmakers (only two opposed it) in the legislative chambers at the session in favour on the 21st March and sent to the President to assent to it into law. 

The bill proposes some of the worst penalties in the world in regards to the LGBTQI+ community’s existence, including: the death penalty for the offence of aggravated homosexuality; life imprisonment for the offence of homosexuality; up to 14 years for attempted homosexuality; and up to 20 years in jail for promoting homosexuality, which makes any discussion around LGBTQI+ issues to be termed ‘promotion,’ and therefore punishable. 

Even though the President returned it to parliament, his only concern was about those that may want come out and seek rehabilitation services. He was totally fine with other cruel sections of the bill which is still heart-breaking and troubling to us as LGBTQI+ advocates and the community at large.

Effect of the bill on LGBTQI+ rights, including for sex workers in Uganda 

If the bill is adopted, it would further violate multiple fundamental rights of LGBTQI+ persons including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom from discrimination, right to fair trial, and freedom of association. It will significantly restrict the work of human rights defenders amplifying the voices of these targeted minority groups. Uganda’s 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, if passed into law, would not only make it illegal to identify as gay, it will place an obligation on friends and family members to report anyone in  same-sex relationships, and any other persons in any capacity dealing with them would be liable to be prosecuted.

The death penalty in the bill violates the right to life. Once passed into law, communities might attack LGBTQI+ community members and brutally harm or kill them without the opportunity of reaching the court of law. Homophobic policy implementors will falsely judge LGBTQI+ community members with the aim of killing them to erase the community they presume to be a curse. 

Instances of arbitrary arrests, discrimination, detention, torture, and other ill-treatment of LGBTQI+ persons in Uganda have been noticed to be on the rise since discussion of the bill started. In February 2023 alone, more than 110 LGBTQI+ people reported incidents of violence perpetrated by angry, homophobic, and transphobic members of the general public.  

Sex workers are disproportionately affected, as they face double stigma. They will be more at risk of violations once the bill passes since clients can decide to hand them in or murder them. 

In regards to health, if the bill is passed into law, it’s likely to interfere with public health strategies for health services, especially sexual and reproductive health service delivery. The increase in stigma and discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons will especially impact people living with HIV/AIDS. The law will also undoubtedly have a negative impact on the campaigns to prevent HIV transmission, which have to date realised considerable success in Uganda. The right to privacy is violated through coercive measures such as mandatory testing for HIV. The right to liberty and security of the person is violated when HIV status is used to justify deprivation of liberty or detention.

The law risks driving populations already suffering stigma and discrimination for their consensual sexual conduct still further away from sources of support and information. 

Effect on LGBTQI+ rights in East Africa

Uganda’s stance on LGBTQI+ rights echoes that of the rest the continent; Africa forms almost a united force of intolerance, with 32 of the African countries criminalising same-sex relations. Uganda is not an outlier – the bill, if passed into law, will not only affect Ugandan LGBTQI+ communities. The effect will spread across the East African community and beyond. Other East African countries may also follow Uganda and toughen restrictions on the LGBTQI+ community in the name of solidarity. LGBTQI+ organising is becoming even harder, and our community members will not be left with any option but to shy away from much-needed health and legal services. Hiding will be the only option if nothing is done now to stop such harsh laws.  

How members of the LGBTQI+ community are feeling in response to the bill

The civic space we have gained is shrinking every day. The advocacy gains are all crumbling. Our community members are back in hiding; there is fear and low self-esteem pushing them back into the closets and unable to access public services they need most. Families have long disowned them, leaving them with no home to run to.

LGBTQI+ community members, especially trans women sex workers, are emotionally distressed as the majority were already struggling with mental health challenges from the already hostile environment. 

Sex workers are already afraid as they are on the verge of losing their main sources of income. Many express the fear of being violated by clients with nowhere to seek justice. Access to health services will become harder if the bill is passed, as health service providers will use the law to officially deny treatment to LGBTQI+ persons.   

The community feels helpless, insecure, and disowned by the systems supposed to offer them protection. Once the bill is passed into law, the hostile conditions will only worsen.

Advocacy Asks:

  • We call upon the Ugandan legislators to stop passing laws that target LGBTQI+ people for political capital, and instead focus on laws that protect vulnerable populations and affirm fundamental rights. 
  • We call upon the President of Uganda not to sign the anti-homosexuality bill into law. It will be an assault on personal freedom and human dignity.
  • LGBTQI+ rights are human rights; staying silent is not an option. We call upon all human rights bodies to take action. Now is the time."